When We Were Strangers Pamela Schoenewaldt (2011)
**** 4/5 stars Check out GoodReads for more reviews of this novel.
This lovely novel follows a young Italian girl in a small mountain village in the 1880s who is urged by her aunt and parish priest to go to America. There is little in the town for her. The young men, including her own brother, have all left to find their fortunes, but she is frightened. She remembers her mother's words, that if you leave Opi you will die with strangers. Having never been further away than the next town, she embarks alone with just her needle and thread and an embroidered map of her hometown.
On her journey, Irma meets many interesting people, with whom she barters works from her needle for knowledge, companionship, and a livelihood. The immigrant experience described in this novel is not all friendly, however. She is cheated in a collar-making factory in Cleveland, and robbed on her way to Chicago, but through it all, her needle and her memory of her loved ones keeps her strong.
Some people may not like the focus of the second half of the novel, during which Irma befriends a woman doctor and abortionist, but the novel starkly outlines some of the realities of life for women in a dangerous time. And in the end, by being true to herself, it is clear, that far from dying among strangers, Irma has built a life of love that she could never have had at home.
Resources about places and things featured in this novel.
The town of Opi is a real mountain town. Located within Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo, between Rome and Naples, about 450 people live there. This photo shows how picturesque, yet remote, the town is even today.
When Irma first arrives in America, she works in a collar factory. It was fascinating to read about the hand work that went into making detachable men's and women's shirt collars, but I had never seen one. Costumer's Manifesto, provides good information, photos, and even patterns for the types of collars that Irma would have been making.
Here is a fantastic Pinterest collection of 1880s fashion plates showing the types of clothing Irma longed to sew.